When I first started praying the Divine Office, it took me months to realize that every Friday morning we prayed Psalm 51. With my track record, I had no trouble at all getting behind “In guilt I was born/a sinner was I conceived,” and after another several months, I also realized that before Psalm 51 every Friday was “Your inmost being must be renewed. You must put on the new man.” (Ephesians 4: 23-24)
I thought of “the new man” yesterday when I was uploading images on my laptop. I, for one, tend to get stuck for decades uploading the same dismal images into my psychic hard drive: the time, 13 years old, when I forgot my Oratorical Contest speech and stood frozen like a deer-in-headlights in front of the entire population of North Hampton, New Hampshire. The moment when the guy-I-adored-who-didn’t-adore-me remarked, apropos of my shattered, hemorrhaging heart, “What’s the matter, havencha ever been rejected before?
I think Christ, in his infinite tenderness, knew all about our tendency, when we are emotionally devastated, to think there is something wrong with us: that we weren’t good enough, that we didn’t measure up. Christ, with his infinite knowledge of the human heart, knew that we tend to be blocked, and then act badly, out of shame and guilt. Kafka’s The Trial rings so true because on some level we sense that we are always being judged for an unknown offense that we’re not sure we committed.
The Misfit, the protagonist of the Flannery O’Connor short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” voices this same dilemma in a different way: our existential loneliness is so excruciatingly painful that we can’t help feeling we’re being punished to an extent that goes far beyond our “crimes”–no matter how bad they were. So even after our track record starts to improve, we tend to think the painful things that happen in life are somehow our fault. Over and over again, because it seems to make sense, we upload the old image.
I think the function of prayer is to very slowly change that. After a long, and seemingly unrewarded, and more or less unswerving, doggedly persistent effort we get a tiny glimpse of the possibility of starting to upload a new image. We start to see that we actually have some control over the image of ourselves and the world that we carry secretly around, and mull over, and harbor, and base our decisions and lives upon. We start to dare to believe that we are loved, and have been all along, in spite of our brokenness.
We start to see Christ was crucified not because he saw that we we were bad, but because he saw that we were lost.